Of the many books in my library there are only a few, as time marches on, with which I continue to have a vibrant friendship. Most of these are spiritual biographies. They are the stories of men and women who have lived and died before my time, but from whom I continue to gain insight and inspiration for living the Christian life.
As a young man I remember a Sunday evening question-and-answer time with my pastor. Someone asked him what he did during periods of spiritual dryness to restore life to his relationship with Christ. While he offered several suggestions, the one that most stuck out to me was the encouragement to read and digest spiritual biographies the same way a starving person would devour a much-needed meal. I took that encouragement seriously and have found the reading of Christian biographies to be one of the greatest refreshing and enlivening disciplines of a warm Christian life.
It was Pastor Warren Wiersbe who in 1971 published a book titled, Walking with Giants. In this volume Wiersbe offered fifteen short biographies of giants of the Christian faith. Over the years I have found it good and inspiring to have giants of the faith lead me to greater devotion to Christ. In Walking with Giants, I read of the lives and ministries of luminaries such as Hudson Taylor, Charles Spurgeon and G. Campbell Morgan. Over my lifetime I am thankful for the way these spiritual biographies have shaped, motivated and humbled me.
Like a lot of people, I enjoy having heroes and heroines in my life. At times, however, these giants reveal the shortness of my stature. It is difficult to read of people like William Wilberforce, John and Charles Wesley, Martin Luther, Adoniram Judson, Jonathan Edwards or C.S. Lewis and compare my paltry service to their productive lives of self-sacrifice for the King.
• Wilberforce spent fifty years, against all the odds, fighting the slave trade in England.
• Charles Wesley wrote thousands of hymns, many that we still sing today. His brother John rode thousands of miles on horseback in both England and America preaching multiple times a day, memorizing much of the Greek New Testament as he rode. The Wesley brothers also shaped what became known as Methodism, one of the most productive church and missionary movements in history.
• Sixteenth century Reformer Martin Luther bravely jettisoned the apostate church of his day, translated the Bible into German for the first time, and led one of the defining movements in the history of the church that became known as Protestantism.
• In 1812, Adoniram Judson, newly married and only twenty-four years old, became the first missionary to leave from the shores of America. He spent most of his life in remote Burma. He suffered imprisonment, torture, few conversions and watched his first two wives die of tropical diseases. On top of that, as Judson endured the long boat trip to India and then Burma, he read his Bible and became a convinced Baptist, invoking the ire of his infant-baptism mission board. He lost his financial support before his ministry began!
• Jonathan Edwards, the voluminous pastor-theologian had the privilege to witness and lead a revival in New England.
• And then there is C.S. Lewis who after his conversion, went on to be, well, C.S. Lewis.
These giants are only a small sampling of the many people who have been my spiritual mentors – mentors I have only known through reading of their faithful lives. And, in spite of the pitfalls that accompany my personal comparison to these giants, I am forever thankful for these models of faith, sacrifice and service. My life with Christ is richer because of them. I concur with what nineteenth century Boston pastor Phillips Brooks, a giant himself, said of these inspirational examples…while it is good to walk among the living, it is good also to live with the wise, great, and good dead. It keeps out of life the dreadful feeling of extemporaneousness, with its conceit and despair. It makes us always know that God made other men before he made us. It furnishes a constant background for living. It provides us with perpetual humility and inspiration.
It is easy for some to shy away from reading the stories of these giants because we can feel so inadequate in their presence. As I have enjoyed and profited from their biographies and drunk deeply from their lives, I have come upon a startling and strangely comforting truth: most giants are simultaneously little people. This is another way to say that our spiritual heroes, although great, were men and women with feet of clay, prone to the same weaknesses, sins, and failings as the rest of us!
Good biographies are not hagiographies and will appropriately show us our heroes’ flaws as well as their excellence. Some years ago Donna and I read a fascinating book together called, Twenty-five Surprising Marriages, by William Peterson. The book described twenty-five well-known Christians and their marriages. We knew something of almost every couple before we read the book. What we didn’t know, and learned as we read, was that all of these marriages, some strong and some weak, looked very much like our marriage and like the marriages of our friends. In other words they weren’t perfect.
Many of those we read about struggled with depression. Some had relationships that lacked warmth and romance. Communication, finances, trouble in raising children and tensions with extended families were a part of many of their lives. We laughed at the comfort it brought us to know that our heroes were very much like the rest of us.
When you read spiritual biographies and walk with the giants it is so freeing to realize you are also strolling with little people. Consider that Charles Spurgeon struggled greatly with depression. Jonathan Edwards was not a very warm pastor and was fired from his church. John Wesley had a horrible marriage and strained relationships with women. Martin Luther could be very crude and harsh. George Whitfield owned slaves and endorsed slavery!
Because of, not in spite of, the real life problems of many of our heroes they remain inspiring examples of what God can do through the faithfulness of the imperfect. So I encourage you to find some spiritual friends who are dead. Discover men and women who can lead you by example to greater service for Christ. Giants you can look up to and with whom you can walk with and little people you can relate to and with whom you can stroll.